Aguasal: Portuguese Fish Soup

vegesToday I ate more papaya, was given fresh mangoes from a tree, ate a guava from Berta’s tree in her yard, and saw a giant jackfruit (also known as breadfruit) tree at a friend’s place.  An ex-pat here tells me the passionfruit is good right now so I’ll pick some up in the next few days.

Dinner tonight was Agosal, or Portugese Fish Soup. Not that I’ve cooked fish quite like this before.

Usually I have the fishmonger remove the head, and maybe the tail too, clean the fish and then wrap it in newspaper. Casamata took a trip to the markets at Lecidere, in the heart of Dili and by the ocean. He returned with seven fish tied together with pandanus leaves, and Apolonia and Aneu got to work with knives to remove the scales.

As I start to film the fish preparation, Aneu tells me he’s never done this before. I’m surprised because I’d thought the effect of a foreign woman writing and videoing food in Timor would relate to women rather than men.

Aneu’s male cousin joins in, and he’s younger than Aneu; he does a lot of the cooking (which I can’t quite work out – who cooks, who doesn’t, and when they are no longer expected to cook). Soon the boys are showing me what to do and Aneu takes the camera and starts to film.  I’m cutting a fish into three pieces (or rather trying to) and taking out the guts.

I’m squeamish.


I don’t even want to touch the fish – I imagine it could start flapping about in my hand at any moment…and it has teeth. I suck it up and take the fish in one hand and then place it on the chopping board trying not to think about the way it feels. I’m told where to chop. I make an incision, cut through the bones…and the knife becomes stuck, so I start to saw.

The boys very kindly tell me the knife is not sharp enough. They take it from me, hold it in front of me, and I cut upwards through the fish. We throw it into a bowl of water and I take the next fish, trying to catch up with Apolonia who is slicing fish beside me.

Once the fish are cut, we wash our hands (wrists and forearms too) and Apolonia starts a fire. She places a pot onto sticks in the fire, and pours in oil. Once the oil heats up she adds garlic, ginger, onion, and a handful of a small, long, vege similar to a finger lime. We stir these and add three (3) cups of water, let it come to the boil, and add our fishy friends. We stir and let the fish soften before adding three (3) handfuls of basil.

Aneu picked the basil from his neighbours place minutes earlier so it’s fresh and the smell is invigorating. Berta joins us now, and after apologising for the black stained walls of her kitchen to Aneu who is taking the video, she takes over, stirring, adding salt, tasting, adding more salt. The family has gathered outside of the kitchen and are chatting and chuckling while a few bustle in the kitchen and Aneu and I film.

When our fish is ready Berta serves it up, taking out the pieces of fish and putting it onto one plate, and the soup into a bowl. We have a mountain of rice in the middle. We stand around the table in a circle and Aneu says a prayer of thanks. We sit, I hand the rice to Berta’s Mum, she shakes her head and tells me to start. By the time the third dish is passed around I know the order the food is passed in.

The fish is delicious!!! I eat the tails, Berta loves the head of the fish, Aneu eats the soup only as he doesn’t like boiled fish because of the bones. We talk about the English and Tetum word for ‘bone’ (ikan ruin, in case you were wondering). Suddenly Berta’s mum stands up, grips the table, and races outside. She has a bone in her throat, which she manages to get rid of it outside. There’s lots of relieved laughter…and then there’s papaya all round.

~ Heidi x

2 Replies to “Aguasal: Portuguese Fish Soup”

  1. Haha I’m glad Berta’s mum was okay! The fish sounds delicious. Well done on developing new cooking skills! I hope you will make this for me one day soon! 🙂

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